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Dylan Baker tackles three disparate characters in Bernhardt/Hamlet on Broadway
Character actors often end up with scene-stealing roles on stage. But three plum parts in one Broadway play? That's the hat trick Dylan Baker pulls off in Theresa Rebeck's Bernhardt/Hamlet, in which he portrays celebrated 19th-century theatre actor Benoît-Constant Coquelin, the Ghost in Hamlet and the title role in Cyrano de Bergerac.
"Theresa is an old friend and she called in late spring and said, 'My husband won't leave me alone! He says, 'If you're having trouble casting that part, go to Dylan,'" recalls Baker, who previously worked with Rebeck on Broadway's Mauritius and the TV show Smash. "Thank god for her husband! When I read the script I thought, oh my god, I get to play all three of these characters? For somebody who probably had ADHD but was never diagnosed, that sounded great. It really captured my imagination."
Bernhardt/Hamlet stars Tony winner Janet McTeer as legendary French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt as she preps to play the moody Danish Prince in a make-or-break production. Critics, some colleagues and even her own son think she's mad as Hamlet to do it. But Coquelin, her costar and confidant, believes in her.
The play, which is currently running at Roundabout's American Airlines Theatre, is based on history -- Bernhardt famously tackled the role of Hamlet numerous times, and Coquelin was her frequent collaborator. However, Bernhardt/Hamlet is no staid docudrama. It's a love letter to the art (and anguish) of making art, and a vibrant portrait of a proto-feminist who lived by her own rules.
Baker, who calls Rebeck "one of the most gifted playwrights we have," is usually recognized for his film and TV roles (Happiness and guest stints on The Americans and The Good Wife are just a handful of his 130-plus screen credits). However, he trained to be a stage actor at Yale School of Drama and started his career in New York, earning a Tony nomination for La Bête in 1991. Over the past decade, he's tried to prioritize theatre, appearing in five Broadway shows, including November, God of Carnage, The Audience and The Front Page.
But Bernhardt/Hamlet affords him an unprecedented opportunity to show off his formidable range. As Coquelin, he goes from buffoon (the guy's such a ham, his costars mock him mercilessly) to brilliant when Bernhardt helps him unlock the pathos in the scene between Hamlet and the Ghost of his dead father. Toward the end, he delivers a powerful speech as Cyrano, a role Coquelin originated in 1897.
To create the character of Coquelin, Baker didn't get too caught up in what the real-life man was like. "I read his book -- more of a pamphlet, really -- on Art and the Actor, which is just hilarious -- it has some ideas that just wouldn't fly very well today," he says. "And our director, Moritz von Stuelpnagel, sent me some biographies of Bernhardt where there's talk about Coquelin. But you know, I took some liberties. What I love about the part is being able to connect with the guy that I see when I go into the Actors' Equity Lounge or any kind of cattle-call audition, that fellow who hasn't gotten a break and may now get it. He thinks if he can just get that call, it can change his life. I think it's in the heart of every single actor out there that they think that call is coming."
Baker adds that he also used "really bad community theatre" as an inspiration for Coquelin's initial soliloquy as the Ghost, which is ridiculously overblown. "There's nothing more beautiful to me than seeing somebody fail at doing something, but their heart is pure they're doing their best," Baker says. "When Coquelin catches the other actors goofing on him, he doesn't get it. The last thought in his mind is that they're making fun of him, because he's great! But then Sarah asks him to try and connect with something deep within him, and it leads to all those feelings. So it's a bit of a revelation for him. I can tell you personally, when my father passed back in 1983 while I was in drama school, I immediately picked stuff from Hamlet because I knew I had emotional work to do. Hamlet is the guy you go to if you want to connect with a father."
Although Baker has yet to get that career-changing call he claims all actors hope for (last year in an interview he joked, "I'd heard that George Clooney was in 10 pilots before he got ER. And I always thought, 'Where’s my ER?'"), he has no complaints. "I know I've been incredibly lucky," he says. "And at this point, I want to do plays because I really do enjoy them. Theatre is a way for an actor to have that direct relationship with an audience that you don't really get when doing television and film. And the nice thing about Broadway is it's close to where I live, so it's an easy commute!"
Raven Snook is the Editor of TDF Stages. Follow her at @RavenSnook. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Dylan Baker and Janet McTeer in Bernhardt/Hamlet. Photos by Joan Marcus.
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